After the collapse of the Soviet Union the newly independent countries of the Central Asian region for the first time in their modern history looked beyond the iron curtain with which they were isolated from the world within the Soviet era. They quickly remembered that in ancient times they were an important part of what today can be called a global system of communication and trade – the Great Silk Road, which connected China to Europe through the Eurasian continent. Central Asian countries desperately needed to break their newly land-locked status. Forming a trade path from East to West was part of their unique selling point. However, such a position is not merely their geographical destiny. It is also a geopolitical condition due to the fact that unlocking the region depends largely on neighboring great powers – namely China and Russia. But interestingly, the opening and unlocking of Central Asia appears to be a more complicated and protracted process than expected, in which the ‘Modern Silk Road’ needs to balance multiple national interests. Continue reading →
Xinjiang will soon see the launch of its first high-speed railway train that will run from Lanzhou city in neighboring Gansu province to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The government has hailed this as a significant move that will boost Xinjiang’s economy through more open trade, tourism and connectivity into Central Asia as part of the leadership’s vision of the new Silk Road Economic belt. Yet, the Guardian has countered that the high-speed railway in Xinjiang may end up exacerbating the growing economic inequality in the province.
Kyrgyz school children hang around the main entrance of school in 2011, the broken iron gates are a result of the violent riots in 2010. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.
Khairulo Mamadaliev talks in trajectories. He talks about the linkages of southern Kyrgyzstan, especially of Jalalabad, where Mamadaliev, an ethnic Uzbek, has spent most of his 43 years. He talks of the region’s past, to its directions shifted and ethnicities sifted. It’s an area he’s immensely and gregariously proud of, and he has no problem taking visitors through and narrating the shape it has taken.
But reaching the recent stretch of that narration is not a part he enjoys sharing. He’ll light up about Babur’s march through Osh on his way to beginning the Moghul Empire in 16th-century India, or the centuries-old Chinese artifacts found in the region. But anything recent, anything following 2010 ethnic riots between majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks that saw nearly 500 citizens – mostly Uzbeks – die, and his voice coarsens.
“You see that?” he asks as we drive down Jalalabad’s Lenin street. We slow down as he points to a small beige building, roof caved, fenced off from passersby. “Uzbeks lived there. Uzbeks built that. And the Kyrgyz burned it to the ground.” Continue reading →
Kyrgyz traders in Karasuu bazaar, Osh region, loading a shipment of televisions that came in from Xinjiang. Photo by Sue Anne Tay
China’s economic influence in Kyrgyzstan has been growing rapidly over the past decade. Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s early membership in the WTO and its generally free economic environment, the country became a major importer, re-exporter and transporter of Chinese goods. As a result, bazaars have become major economic lifelines for Kyrgyzstan, concentrating great amounts of wealth and benefiting hundreds of thousands of people.
Although Chinese economic presence in Kyrgyzstan (and the wider region) is yet to translate into political influence, there are indirect political consequences for Kyrgyzstan. Over the past few years, shuttle traders importing Chinese goods have been at the forefront of the debate as to whether or not Kyrgyzstan should join the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union (CU). There are mixed feelings towards the union.
For all of the discussion of China’s economic hegemony in Central Asia it remains nonetheless surprising that the visual evidence of China’s influence can appear so lacking in Kyrgyzstan. Traipsing through Bishkek, skirting through as many Turkish and German and Moldovan restaurants as your stomach will allow, you realize that Bishkek boasts a surprising international reach. In comparison, visual signs of Chinese presence is, on the whole, markedly lacking. Save for the rare Chinese restaurant, there are no Chinese cultural centers standing tall in downtown corners or much visible evidence of Chinese words on posters or shop fronts highlighting their presence.
In spite of Kyrgyzstan’s economic and geopolitical trajectory, if you were walking through Bishkek, Chinese influence would seem an afterthought. In comparison, Turkish flags can be seen flying outside the Hyatt and plastered around the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University. Advertisements for English lessons, taught by British and American nationals, are offered at nearly every major intersection. And the Soviet legacy lingers with each passing block, both in architecture and in every passing conversation. Russia remains dominant in the country. Continue reading →
Two men stroll through Ala-Too Square, Bishkek’s main square in the city centre.
The entrance to one of the campuses of the Kyrgyzstan Turkish Manas University which is strongly supported by the Turkish government.
Horses race along the Bishkek-Osh highway that runs north to south from the country’s capital to the second largest city in the south.
A ethnic Russian Kyrgyz boy stands in front of a colorful array of cold salads in a food bazaar in Jalalabad, a southern city in Kyrgyzstan.
A view from outside the Kyrgyzstan Presidential Palace in Bishkek. During the Tulip Revolution in 2005, opposition forces protesting corruption, stormed the palace, forcing out the then-President President Askar Akayev.
A political rally is underway in Osh city in southern Kyrgyzstan in October 2011. The candidate was a Osh official, Bakir Uulu, a candidate seen as a soft-Islamist and eager for the US to move its military presence out of Kyrgyzstan.
An elder woman strolls through the back alleys of the trade bazaar in Jalalabad, a southern city in Kyrgyzstan.
A typical market scene in Osh, the southern and second largest city in Kyrgyzstan.
A Kyrgyz politician is interviewed by a correspondent for a local television station.
Turkmenistan’s southeastern desert, not far from the border with Afghanistan, is a forbidding place. Its bleak, dusty vistas are punctuated by the ruins of ancient caravansaries: once rest stops on the old Silk Road. But, the silence of that long lost East-West artery is now regularly broken by the rumble of Chinese truck convoys. These are not ordinary tractor-trailers, either: they move slowly carrying massive loads of natural gas extraction equipment, and according to Turkmen officials, the shepherds’ bridges and village roads have had to be reinforced from the impact of their weight. The equipment is headed to one of the top five natural gas fields in the world; Formerly known as South Yolotan-Osman, in 2011 the field was renamed “Galkynysh” or “revival” in Turkmen. The name is apt because this gargantuan reserve of natural gas is the prize motivating CNPC, China’s largest oil company, to revive the old Silk Road — only this time by pipeline. Continue reading →
Alexandros Petersen is interviewed by The Gadfly on April 16, 2013
The Gadfly: You have referred to China’s growing influence in Central Asia as an “Inadvertent Empire.” Could you explain what you mean?
Alexandros Petersen: It’s an inadvertent empire in the sense that China is already the most consequential actor in the region and will soon be the dominant actor in a number of different areas. It already is the dominant actor in the economic sphere and definitely so in the energy sector, which is actually quite a significant accomplishment given Russia’s traditional role in that area. China has also become the go to place for loans and investments. One of the key needs in Central Asia is investment in infrastructure, and that requires funds. Russia doesn’t have the money; the United States doesn’t have the money in some cases and simply doesn’t care in others; the European Union is not comfortable giving money because of the nature of some of the regimes in the region, so China is really the only option to provide funding as well as institutional capacity building. So, it’s an empire in the sense that China is the player to watch and will be the dominate player in the future, but it’s inadvertent, in the sense that China doesn’t really have a strategy for the region. China doesn’t want an empire. As Seeley would say, it has an empire “in a fit of absence of mind.” Continue reading →
On April 2, 2013 Alexandros Petersen conducted an interview with Chris Rickleton, a Bishkek-based analyst and Instructor at the American University of Central Asia.
You have conducted in-depth research into Chinese plans for a refinery at Kara Balta in Kyrgyzstan. What exactly are these plans and on what sort of timetable are they to be carried out?
The refinery is already behind schedule, but is expected to be built by July of this year, and operating at full capacity by September. Local media reported some tough talk in January between Chu Chan, the director of Zhongda, the Chinese state-owned firm that will run the refinery, and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Jantoro Saptybaldiyev. Saptybaldiyev was clearly very keen to see the refinery working as soon as possible and asked Chu why the facility still hadn’t been built. Chu referred to “misunderstandings” having led to the wrong equipment being delivered to the site. Chu also wanted the “sanitary zone”, which governs the distance residential homes can be from the refinery, reduced from 500 metres to 300 metres, which would have helped the company out in some of its compensation battles with local residents. When Saptybaldiyev rebuffed this offer, Chu reminded him that the company have already paid something like $4,000,000 in taxes and that they will have invested $250 million into the project by the time it is up and running.
In the gravelly, uncertain road coursing through Kyrgyzstan’s picturesque Alay Valley, it does not take long to stumble across the Chinese road workers’ camp. Though just a dusty collection of prefab dormitories, the camps nevertheless proudly display the company’s name, logo and various slogans in large red Chinese characters. A Kyrgyz security guard is fast asleep on his cot, and the camp is deserted except for a young engineer from Sichuan. He explains that they work six months out of the year, when snow doesn’t block the passes. Next year, the road will be finished. He says his friends that work on Chinese-built roads in Africa get a better deal.
Further down the road, amid bulldozers and trucks full of dirt, are the road workers. They’re slowly reshaping the mountains, molding them into smooth inclines and regulation grades. Then there are the trucks; hundreds of them, crowding at the Chinese/Kyrgyz border, all engaged in the increasingly active trade between the two countries. One of the truckers, a member of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, is eager to chat. The roof of the world is his workplace. It takes three days to drive a 30 ton load from Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang province, through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. He and his colleagues bring 100 such loads across every week. Continue reading →
The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report, “China’s Central Asia Problem” is a sweeping and masterful work in many ways. As we traveled through and conducted research in eastern China, Xinjiang, post-Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan, Raffaello and I came across ICG researchers and bounced our ideas off of ICG’s seasoned Eurasia hand Paul Quinn-Judge. The report kindly quotes a couple of our articles that appeared here on chinaincentralasia.com.
But, does the ICG report get it right? Yes and no. The overall point that China is on the brink of becoming the pre-eminent external power in the region, not just in the economic sphere, is correct. We have argued that China is already the most consequential actor in Central Asia, as well as the most forward-looking external power. In the context of a U.S., and more broadly Western, exit from the region, the engagement of multifarious Chinese actors – from diplomats to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to shuttle traders to manual laborers and Chinese language teachers – combines to create a momentum that has no clear counterweight. Continue reading →
In the last two years, China has emerged as the most consequential outside actor in Central Asia. As we have described in other writings, China’s ascension to this role has been largely inadvertent . It has more to do with the region’s contemporary circumstances and China’s overall economic momentum than a concerted effort emanating from the Zhongnanhai. The implications for United States and NATO policy are nevertheless profound. Not only have the geopolitics of Eurasia shifted in ways little understood in Washington and Brussels, but the socio-political and physical undergirding of the post-Soviet space from Aktobe to Kandahar is being transformed.
Official Chinese policy in Central Asia is quiet and cautious, focused on developing the region as an economic partner with its western province Xinjiang whilst also looking beyond at what China characterizes as the “Eurasian Land Bridge…connecting east Asia and west Europe” (Xinhua, September 4, 2012). Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are active throughout the region on major infrastructure projects, but it is not clear how much they are being directed as part of some grand strategy as opposed to focusing on obvious profitable opportunities. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the main multilateral vehicle for Chinese regional efforts and reassuring engagement is a powerfully symbolic, but institutionally empty actor. Many smaller Chinese actors—ranging from shuttle traders to small-time entrepreneurs to schoolteachers and students posted to Confucius Institutes throughout the region—are the gradual vanguard of possible long-term Chinese investment and influence. Continue reading →
While the concept of a “New Silk Road” of trade, transport and telecommunications connections across Eurasia was formally endorsed by the US State Department, it is Beijing and Chinese companies that have taken the lead in realizing the immense infrastructure projects that will tie the mega-continent together. The latest is the completion of a second railway link between China and Kazakhstan at the burgeoning Khorgos crossing point and Special Economic Zone. This nearly 600-kilometer section is part of a larger project that connects China’s eastern port of Lianyungang with Kazakhstan’s rail system and points west toward Russia and the Caspian region. Chinese officials refer to it as part of the New Eurasian Land Bridge from China’s ports to Western European ports such as Rotterdam (Global Times, December 22, 2012).
Plans call for the railway to handle 20 million tons of freight by 2020, increasing to 30 million by 2030. The 292-km Chinese portion of the project was built for less than $1 billion—relatively inexpensive by global standards. Khorgos is already the key border crossing for the Central Asia–China natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and a new highway network under construction. According to Kazakhstan’s Minister for Transport and Communications Askar Zhumagaliyev, 800 km of this Western Europe–Western China highway will be completed in 2013, with much of the route running alongside the just-completed railway (Tengrinews, December 20, 2012). Continue reading →
Alexandros Petersen is quoted by Joshua Kucera on EurasiaNet.
Part of the reason is that Central Asia remains a low priority for the government in Beijing, and so policy is shaped on an ad hoc basic via deals made by various companies and government organs, said Alexandros Petersen, an analyst and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who studies Chinese policy in Central Asia. “There is no grand strategy for Central Asia on the part of Beijing,” Petersen said. “What there is, however, is a confluence of all the activities of these multifarious actors which, regardless of what Beijing wants or doesn’t want, means that China is nonetheless the most consequential actor in the region.”
Nevertheless, China’s strategy towards Central Asia may be a function of its need to pacify Xinjiang, Petersen said: “The engagement in Central Asia … has to do with security concerns about Xinjiang, number one, and only secondly, after that, is it about resources and economic development.”
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?
A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.” Continue reading →